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Muscles and brains get healthier together

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

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So, lifting weights… good for Alzheimer’s? Good chance! A 2020 study by Liu et al clearly showed a neuroprotective effect from resistance training in mice. Compared to mice who were not given cute little barbells.

Seriously, how exactly do you build mouse muscle? A ladder with a treat at the top, and teensy weights attached to their tails! I am not even joking: that really is how they did this.

“The mice were motivated to climb up the ladder to a total of 15 times, with progressively heavier weights attached to their tails and a 2-minute rest in between each climb.”

Sounds like more fun than my gym visits.

So what did Liu et al. find? Specifically, with full jargon:

“improved cognitive performance and reduced neuropathological and neuroinflammatory changes in the frontal cortex and hippocampus of mice… [and] inhibition of pro-inflammatory intracellular pathways.”

So… better thinking along with less disease and inflammation in the brain, and fewer inflammation signals between cells.

Drawing of a brain.

Obviously a human study would be more persuasive (always), but it’s still early days for studying neuroinflammation. Lots of what we now know about exercise physiology we initially learned from mice. It’s likely (or at least highly plausible) that this protective effect will be confirmed in humans as well — despite the fact that “mice lie and monkeys exaggerate” in research.†

It has been clear for many years now that exercise in general is neuroprotective — that is, it has an anti-inflammatory effect in the brain and slows down Alzheimer’s disease progression — but that insight mostly comes from studies of aerobic exercise. This study extends that effect to resistance training, which is why the conclusion isn’t much of a reach: we already know that another kind of exercise does this, and we already know that resistance training is an excellent way to exercise.

Anything that’s “neuroprotective” is quite likely to be a pain shield over time as well — better odds of a good recovery from the inevitable insults and triggers. And that’s the point of sharing this here.

As always: most people should take strength training more seriously as a form of exercise than they do, for a host of reasons, but particularly because it’s surprisingly efficient and does not require anyone to go to the gym and hang out with bodybuilding bros.

Mice lie and monkeys exaggerate — Mice and other non-human animals can be excellent models for our physiology, but they are also infamously misleading. “Mice lie and monkeys exaggerate” is the medical researchers' lament about the unreliability of animal models. Just because something is true for animals in a study does not mean it will be true for humans. Consider how dangerous chocolate is for dogs! Veterinarians can tell you about many more, but even that is the tip of the iceberg — the differences that are the most important and serious for the animals we care about the most. (The origin of the quote isn’t certain — is it ever? — but it is often attributed to David B. Weiner, and he was talking about problems with the use of non-human primates in HIV vaccine studies.)